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Why Are Most Programs Still 32-bit on a 64-bit Version of Windows?

windows-8-task-manager-32-bit-apps

Your computer is probably running a 64-bit version of Windows. But take a look at the Task Manager and you’ll see most programs on your system are still 32-bit. Is this a problem?

There are many differences between 64-bit and 32-bit versions of Windows. 64-bit versions of Windows can run 32-bit software, but 32-bit versions of Windows can’t run 64-bit software.

Check What Programs Are Still 32-bit

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Use the task manager to see which of your programs are 64-bit and which are 32-bit. Right-click the taskbar and select Task Manager or press Ctrl+Shift+Escape to open it.

Look in the process name column. If you’re using a 64-bit version of Windows 8.1 or 8, you’ll see “(32-bit)” after each name of a 32-bit program. If you’re using a 64-bit version of Windows 7, you’ll see “*32″ instead.

windows-7-task-manager-32-bit-software

32-bit programs are usually installed to the C:\Program Files (x86)\ folder on 64-bit versions of Windows, while 64-bit programs tend are usually installed to the C:\Program Files\ folder.

This is just a rule of thumb — there’s no rule that says 64-bit programs can’t be in the C:\Program Files (x86)\ folder. For example, Steam is a 32-bit program, so it installs to “C:\Program Files (x86)\” by default. Games you install in Steam are installed to the C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam folder by default — even 64-bit games will install here.

If you compare your two different Program Files folders, you’ll find that most of your programs are probably installed to the C:\Program Files (x86) folder. They’re likely 32-bit programs.

what-is-program-files-x86-folder

Is Running 32-bit Software on a 64-bit OS Bad?

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On the surface, this seems bad. Most of your Windows programs aren’t taking advantage of the 64-bit architecture. You might imagine that there’s a performance penalty for running such 32-bit programs on a 64-bit operating system, but this isn’t true.

Windows runs 32-bit programs through the WoW64 compatibility layer on 64-bit versions of Windows. However, 64-bit Intel and AMD processors are backward compatible and can natively execute 32-bit software. Your 32-bit Windows programs will run about the same as they would on a 32-bit version of Windows, so there’s no downside to running these programs on a 64- bit operating system.

Even if every program you use is still 32-bit, you’ll benefit because your operating system itself is running in 64-bit mode. The 64-bit version of Windows is more secure.

But 64-bit Programs Would Be Better, Right?

There’s no downside to running those 32-bit programs on a 64-bit OS instead of a 32-bit OS. But wouldn’t it be better if all your programs were 64-bit?

There are definitely advantages for 64-bit programs. 32-bit programs can only use 2 GB of memory each, while 64-bit programs can use much more. If a program is likely to come under attack, the additional security features applied to 64-bit programs can help. Google Chrome is currently a 32-bit application even on 64-bit versions of Windows, but it’s already a 64-bit version on the beta channel. Google promises that the 64-bit version of Chrome will be faster, more secure, and more stable.

64-bit-chrome

Some programs do offer 64-bit versions. Photoshop, iTunes, and Microsoft Office are a few of the most popular Windows programs, and they’re all available in 64-bit form. Demanding games are often 64-bit so they can use more than 2 GB of memory.

itunes-download-64-bit

Many programs haven’t made the leap, and most never will. You can still run most ten-year-old 32-bit Windows programs on a 64-bit version of Windows today, even if their developers haven’t updated them since 64-bit versions of Windows came along.

A developer that want to provide a 64-bit version of their program has to do additional work. They have to make sure the existing code compiles and runs correctly as 64-bit software. They have to provide and support two separate versions of the program, as people running a 32-bit version of Windows can’t use the 64-bit version.

Let’s take the Windows desktop version of Evernote as an example here. Even if they provided a 64-bit version of Evernote, users likely wouldn’t notice a difference at all. The 32-bit program can run just fine on a 64-bit version of Windows, and there’d be no noticeable advantages of it went 64-bit.

Getting 64-bit Applications

You usually won’t be able to choose between 32-bit and 64-bit versions of software. For example, when you install iTunes for Windows, Apple’s website automatically directs you to the 32-bit or 64-bit installer depending on your version of Windows. When you install Photoshop for Windows, both the 32-bit and 64-bit .exe files are installed and Photoshop automatically chooses the appropriate ones. Sometimes you’ll see separate download links for 32-bit and 64-bit versions, but this isn’t as common.

What’s important isn’t finding a 64-bit application — it’s finding applications that work well for you. For most applications, 64-bit vs. 32-bit doesn’t really matter.

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It’s easy to wonder why so many applications are still 32-bit when you look at your task manager, but it isn’t a very big issue. Applications that benefit from being 64-bit are transitioning to 64-bit software. Even if developers did all the work and rolled out 64-bit versions of all the little Windows desktop applications and utilities you use, you wouldn’t be able to notice the difference for most of them.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 08/5/14